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Bar News - November 18, 2015

Morning Mail: Felonies First Will Succeed

I read with interest the article in the Oct. 21 issue of Bar News about the forthcoming implementation of the Felonies First legislation. As the Chair of the House Judiciary Committee, readers of Bar News may be interested in my view on this legislation.

As chair of the New Hampshire Judiciary Committee, I am confident that the Felonies First program will succeed and provide greater efficiencies in the processing of felonies and without the loss of defendantsí rights. Attorney Sisti, who was quoted in the article, is wrong when he suggested that the program is an experiment doomed to fail. It may well be modified before it goes statewide, but it is the felonies processing procedure of the 21st century.

The members of the Judiciary Committee spent an extraordinary amount of time interviewing local law enforcement officials, Circuit Court judges and county attorneys to insure that defendantí rights will be met and that the test program will work. Following the one-year implementation of the law in Cheshire, Belknap and Strafford counties, the new process will receive an independent evaluation by the New Hampshire Judicial Council. The Judicial Council will survey the municipalities and counties in the test program to obtain cost and effectiveness opinions. The council will report its findings to the Legislature before the law is expanded to the final seven counties.

But if you consider the processing method for felonies in the historical context, you must agree that it is time for change. Consider the court system, local law enforcement and the road system as it existed in New Hampshire in the 19th century through the mid- to late 20th century. Every city and town had a court, municipal or district. There 100-200 lower courts, but only 10 county superior courts; many of these functioned on a part-time basis.

While it is currently a matter of less than an hour to travel from a remote municipality to a superior court, that was not so in the past. It might mean a loss of an entire day for attorneys, defendants, law enforcement and witnesses to travel to the county seat. It was more efficient to have the preliminary activity conducted locally and resolve all but the most serious cases. Further, there were far fewer serious crimes committed in the past. No so now. In the 21st century, the travel issue does not exist. And we now have the benefit of video conferencing between the courts, county attorneys, law enforcement officials and defendants that will allow the elimination of many preliminary court hearings.

Still, there are concerns among Judiciary Committee members. We want the law to work and achieve efficiencies, but not to reduce defendantsí rights. This is why we have established the independent evaluation of the program after the introduction of the law in the three test counties. The Judicial Council will evaluate the performance in each of the three counties. If Felonies First does not meet expectations, the law will be amended or eliminated.

Robert H. Rowe
Chair, NH House Judiciary Committee

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